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SCHOOL STILL AIMS TO EXPAND

Gulf Coast Academy withdraws a rezoning request but won't give up its plans for growth.

Hernando County's lone charter school may have abandoned its proposal to build a new campus in a residential area, but the overall goal to expand hasn't changed.

"We're actively looking at other pieces of property," said Nevin Ray Siefert II, director of administration at Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology in Spring Hill. "There's a demand in this county for alternative middle school options, and we'd like to meet that demand."

Gulf Coast officials withdrew a rezoning request that had been slated to be heard by the County Commission on Tuesday. The school sought to create a public service overlay district for a vacant 7.6-acre parcel off Hoover Street to accommodate a 19,400-square-foot facility.

That would have been enough space for 240 students, or double the capacity of the school's facility on Tillery Road, east of Landover Boulevard. Gulf Coast had an option to buy the Hoover parcel pending the rezoning.

Residents in the area were vocal in their opposition, however, expressing concerns about increased traffic on Hoover, a dead-end road.

County staff suggested that the Planning and Zoning Commission recommend that the County Commission approve the request with a host of conditions. Instead, the planning board recommended denial, praising the school's goal to expand but agreeing that it wasn't a good fit for the neighborhood.

That meant Gulf Coast had an uphill battle to win over the commissioners Tuesday. Even if that happened, the school would be moving into a neighborhood where it was not very welcome.

"The public sentiment was pretty clear," Siefert said. "We want to be good neighbors wherever we end up."

The school has an "extensive" waiting list at every grade level, he said.

School officials want to stay within a 3- or 4-mile radius of their current site because a large majority of students come from the Spring Hill area.

"We're in a perfect spot right now," Siefert said.

The school needs at least 6 acres to accommodate a main building, parking, and traffic during pickup and dropoff times. Even in a down market, the search hasn't been easy, though Siefert said they do have some leads on some promising parcels.

"Commercial land in a prime spot is still fairly desirable in Hernando County," he said.

Charter schools are nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations that have a contract or charter to provide the same educational services to students as district public schools. They receive public funding but are held accountable by the local district to meet state academic and financial standards.

Opened in 2003, Gulf Coast specializes in hands-on activities and small class sizes to foster its math and science-based curriculum.

The school has a good record based on student test scores and clean financial audits, said Jeff Yungmann, curriculum supervisor for the Hernando County School District.

"They are showing proven results in academics and real-world applications to science and technology," he said.

Gulf Coast would be considered "high-performing" under legislation passed this session and awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

The law makes it easier for successful charter schools to increase enrollment, expand the number of grade levels served and replicate themselves at another location.

Gulf Coast officials had already decided to keep the school's current property. The new law would mean more options as they consider how to use it.

"We're excited to explore what that legislation will allow us to do," Siefert said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

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